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Exploring Liminal Realities: An Interview with Gillian Holding

Join us as we unravel the layers of ambiguity, power, and absurdity that define these mesmerizing paintings. Through this conversation, we'll gain insight into the artist's unique approach to capturing the essence of our ever-evolving world and the potent emotions it evokes.

31 August 2023

Joana Alarcão

In the world of contemporary art, where the boundaries of imagination and reality often blend, some artists delve into this intricate and complex realm and create work that questions current contemporary realities. Today we talk with Gillian Holding, whose recent paintings challenge your perceptions and invite us to explore the peculiar interplay between figures, objects, and the world they inhabit.

In this body of work, Holding presents female forms delicately poised in a conundrum of meaning. The figures within the paintings, while seemingly restrained, exude an undeniable aura of power and agency. By focusing on and drawing inspiration from her sketchbooks and intuitive experimentation, the finished imagery transports us to a realm full of seeming contradictions that embody the perplexing nature of our post-truth contemporary reality.

As we delve into the essence of Holdings's work, we'll uncover how the artist's disruptive and disjunctive processes mirror the complexities of existence itself.

By Gillian Holding. Image courtesy of Gillian Holding.

Could you give us a brief overview of your practice? What steps did you take to become the artist you are today?

I’ve made art and created things for as long as I can remember. Life is art and art is life and it’s surprisingly hard to succinctly explain my practice! But if I’m forced to put a label on what I do, I’d say everything comes down to painting and drawing in some fashion or other whether it’s expressed on a flat surface, or three-dimensionally, or with fabric and thread. And everything I do is an expression of the experience of living in an absurd world. 

How does your background as a former lawyer, parent, writer, and interfaith worker inform and influence your artistic practice?

It’s all integral to how I think and what I do; I make the art I do because of all these experiences and influences. 

For many years I struggled to find a clear path artistically and I’m sure that was because I felt I was so many different personae and each person had very different experiences and approaches. I kept feeling there had to be some way to integrate all these very different aspects of my character and life in my work, but it wasn’t until I allowed myself to work purely intuitively and without overthinking that everything began to fall into place. One of the potential disadvantages of studying fine art is that you tend to have to theorise and contextualise everything you do before and while you are doing it. In fact, it makes more sense to do the work - or at least all the early explorations- and only then sit back and reflect on what it all may mean. I now finally look back on everything I’ve done over the last ten years and identify consistent ideas and thematic concerns that are all very clearly connected. 


A Submitting to Uncertainty by Gillian Holding. Image courtesy of Gillian Holding.

Can you discuss the symbolism and significance of the strangely positioned figures, objects, and animals in your oil paintings? How do they relate to the themes of power, agency, and resistance?

In life, I’m fascinated by trying to connect and untangle links between events and all the big concerns of society. Everything is connected in some way. Symbolic of this, the links are all there to be found at some level between the disparate objects and figures in my paintings. But it may not be immediately obvious even to me, since I am working from my unconscious in creating the imagery and placement of the forms. It’s a good illustration of what I meant above when I talked about doing the work first, then sitting back and reflecting. There’s inevitably a sudden moment of recognition when I think “Oh yes, that’s why…”

The ambiguity and potentially contradictory readings of imagery allow me to express both power and powerlessness simultaneously and in turn allow for the possibility of agency. The poses and positioning of the figures both relative to each other and within the framework of the edges of the surface are very important in this respect. For example, they may be read as being on the cusp of losing balance: but also on the point of recovering it. They may be reaching up to either successfully or unsuccessfully push through a barrier. I see this in allegorical terms, reflecting our efforts to navigate the absurdities of contemporary society. But when faced with apparent incoherence and uncertainty, there is still potential, still agency to find a way through.


In your practice, you predominantly portray female forms. What led you to focus on female figures, and how do they represent both constraint and resilience?

It wasn’t initially a conscious decision, but something that just emerged when I gave myself permission to start painting figures intuitively and from imagination. It just felt right. My natural painting “handwriting” of lines and marks has always had a gestural, organic and expressive inclination. I see this as more naturally and subjectively “female”. But then my daughters began asking me about the significance of “always women”. It suddenly became very obvious to me that what I had previously seen as an expression of a universal experiencing of society was actually a specifically female experiencing of our world. Balancing, searching, pushing, straining, constrained and restrained yet somehow managing, overcoming, succeeding: these are the essence of what it is to be a woman navigating this world. There may be men who would argue this also reflects their experience but I don’t see it that way at all. 


By Gillian Holding. Image courtesy of Gillian Holding.

Could you elaborate on the role of liminal spaces in your paintings and their ability to evoke ambiguity and obscurity?

Liminal spaces are commonly places of transition, and liminality in anthropological terms is the ambiguity that happens in the course of some form of transition. These days, it is also taken to cover political and cultural change. So it’s an important element for me, this vagueness of space and use of unclear architectural forms, in creating uncertainty about what’s happening and in trying to express the destabilising effects of the world we inhabit. More broadly, it is emblematic of the massive sense of transition we all find ourselves in right now. 

How do you approach the use of color in your artwork, particularly the decision to work with a limited color palette for each painting?

I use colour intuitively. I’m obsessed with colour mixing and happy colour accidents so I find it best to work with as few colours as possible for a series of works and then often throw in something unexpected because it feels right. In my head, I imagine creating restrained works of tonal-coloured greys but it never happens. I have distinct colour preference phases though. I can’t stop using deep deep reds at the moment. I also love celadon green and neutralised duck egg blues with everything. I paint wet in wet, so a lot of colour mixing happens on the canvas. Creating accidental colour harmonies is one of the absolute joys of painting. 


The Impossibility of Squaring circles by Gillian Holding. Image courtesy of Gillian Holding.

One of your submitted works is the series A World in Crisis. What are the concepts behind them? What motivated you to create these series?

I did a residency a few years ago where I was in a huge cavernous empty white space. It was wonderful. It was also a bit daunting on day one. I’d been reading a lot on the Anthropocene and was also feeling overwhelmed by the sense of so many simultaneous crises happening in the world. I wondered how one could even begin to think of solutions without seeing the big picture. There are so many conflicting demands everywhere we look, and some very hard decisions need to be made if we are to find a sustainable future for our society. But no government anywhere is prepared to make truly hard decisions.

I started with a load of yellow post-its dotted across one of the walls, labelling every societal problem and global crisis that came to mind and began connecting them literally with string. Eventually, I had this huge networked web of crisis connectivity which was both hugely disturbing but also psychologically and creatively satisfying. It stayed up there in the background, informing the paintings being worked on around the rest of the space, and ever since.  


How do you see the impact of living in a "post-truth society" reflected in your artwork, particularly in terms of increasing feelings of alienation, helplessness, fragility, and entrapment?

I think this emerging post-truth society is terrifying. Pandora’s box is now fully open. There is no return from where we are now and it’s only going to get worse. It has been absurd enough over recent years that lies when repeated often enough are given airtime by even respectable media outlets in the interests of “journalistic balance”. But now we are faced with the horrors of AI and the likelihood that we will soon be unable to believe anything we see or hear online. How are we to have informed debate on any of the major crises we all face when the basic truths of the discourse are so manipulated and the democratic process is so insidiously threatened? The potential impact of AI is truly horrifying. 


We are Where We Are by Gillian Holding. Image courtesy of Gillian Holding.

How do you perceive the potential for art to contribute to changing the absurdities and contradictions present in society, even if only through the act of painting and sharing your experiences?

I’d like to think that something which encourages an audience to stop and think is a positive thing but in reality, I don’t think art alone can change anything. Social theory suggests that only 3.5% of a population needs to be actively engaged in non-violent protests to effect real change, and I suspect the audience for politically engaged art and culture prepared to effect change is nowhere near that. Take the climate protests. We are facing an existential threat with the climate crisis. The 3.5% theory would call for over two million activists out there protesting and we aren’t seeing anything like those numbers actively engaged. So even the most politically engaged and compelling art will struggle to have a meaningful impact. Take Guernica: possibly the most successful “political” artwork ever in terms of profile and encouraging anti-war sentiment and yet did it ever stop a war? I wish I could be more positive here! 


Lastly, are there any resources you would like to recommend to our readers?

I’m interested in anything and everything which explores the absurdity and banality of our daily lives: The reality of what we experience daily is completely removed from the “reality” mediated and repackaged and served up to us by social media and mainstream media. So I do a lot of wandering around urban spaces to ground myself and pay close attention to the detail of our overlooked mundane everyday environment. And a lot of reading about urban spaces and psychogeography; the classic texts such as Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space are well worth a read, as is Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. More recently, I was introduced to the work of a contemporary Italian feminist philosopher Adriana Caravero. In her book Inclinations: a Critique of Rectitude, she looks at the moral and political significance of vertical posture and contrasts the masculine upright with the feminine inclined. Given the intuitively painted invariable inclined female forms in my works, it’s been fascinating to read about this from differing cultural contexts.  

Read more about the artist here.

Cover Image.

Unbearable Searching by Gillian Holding. Image courtesy of Gillian Holding.

In my most recent paintings, juxtaposed strangely positioned figures, objects and animals haunt the canvases. The figures emerge invariably as female forms, constrained or restrained, balancing, poised momentarily on a threshold or awkwardly reaching out to or clasping something. But they are not without power or agency as they grasp, search, and resist, seeking a way through. The liminal spaces are ambiguous and obscure. Often the poses are impossible, despite being superficially convincing.

They are worked in oil with strong colour, although each painting is worked with a limited colour palette. Some compositions are informed by sketchbook drawing and small studies. Others have emerged from the suggestions generated by an intuitive placing of shapes and brushmarks.

The presence of the unexpected in the imagery invites us to consider the surreal contradictions that characterise today’s world. We are living in a post truth society, hypnotised and paralysed. Each day sees a new set of conflicting facts and interactions, adding to our uncertainty. Our lived experiences of the familiar everyday often seem at odds with the packaged alternative reality mediated by omnipresent social and mainstream media in a digital world. The inescapable sense of dissonance that results when confronted by mediated “reality” increases feelings of alienation, helplessness, fragility and entrapment.

My experience of this lies at the heart of my work. The disruptive, disjunctive processes I use are as important as the resulting final ambiguous imagery of forms lost and trapped in their surroundings.

What’s on your mind?

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